Thursday May 23, 2024

Secular terrorism

By Muhammad Abdul Basit
April 29, 2022

In an unusual attack inside Karachi University, a female suicide bomber killed herself and three Chinese nationals and their Pakistani driver.

Women in terrorism is not a new phenomenon but this is the first of its kind by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), an ethnonational secessionist terrorist group active in Balochistan. The BLA has attacked Chinese nationals multiple times in the past, in addition to its terrorist activities against the state of Pakistan.

Pakistan has many challenges from outside the border and perhaps even greater from within. Economic and political instability as well as religious and secular terrorism are matters that need acute and careful consideration.

To be clear, the term ‘secular terrorism’ takes into account the various dimensions of terrorism that do not have religious tendencies. The separatist groups, fighting for independence, fall in this category. Religious terrorism creates disruption in the social order but often fails to find massive success in achieving its political goals. On the contrary, secular terrorism can even lead to changing the world map. Nationalism is the most powerful political ideology on the planet. And that’s why states resort to extreme means to contain subnational movements. States are always cautious of their territorial integrity.

A state-centric view always sees any secessionist group as terrorist, and arguably rightly so. In matters of security and territorial integrity, state behaviour is always, and without any exception, governed by the dictates of realism.

Pakistan has, unfortunately, been a land barren of investments for many decades. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) provides enormous potential for the economic growth of the country. However, huge potentials do not come without risks. Multiple religious-backed as well as non-religious terrorist outfits have attacked the project in the recent past.

The recent attack on the Chinese, by religiously motivated or nationalist groups, may not send goodwill gestures to the only neighbour with which Pakistan enjoys cordial relations. Stability in Balochistan matters a lot for CPEC, and it cannot be maintained by repressive measures for long. Such attacks jeopardize the progress of the CPEC project that is vital to Pakistan’s economic growth. Investments in areas that have insurgencies remain at stake. Political stability precedes economic security. The BLA has attacked Chinese citizens multiple times in different areas of the country. Interestingly, the BLA recruits educated people for its nefarious activities.

There are some widespread myths regarding terrorism. Ask a common person what should be done to eradicate terrorism and the answer is most likely to be: educate people and make their financial situation better. In reality, most of these terrorists are well-educated and belong to financially stable families.

The case of this female suicide bomber is self-evident – an educated woman pursuing an MPhil degree and belonging to a financially well-off family. Many renowned terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, Aimen al Zawahiri, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and Noreen Leghari were well-educated too. Moreover, engineers and doctors have a huge presence in the terrorist outfits.

A study by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog indicates that among violent Islamists, the proportion of extremists with an engineering background was three to four times high. The reason: terrorist organizations need their services, and they are easier to be manipulated compared to students of other educational fields. Similar is the case with non-religious terrorist organizations. They hire educated people too. When educated people find their society facing relative inequality, feelings of despair generate outrage.

In the bigger picture, when terrorists attack, the counterterrorism measures often result in collateral damage, which in turn bounces back in the form of graver resentment in the affected population that is already outraged because of the relative inequality. Balochistan does have its legitimate grievances. As long as they are not catered to, the challenges are destined to stay there. The problems of enforced disappearances, use of Balochistan’s resources without development within the province and punitive measures leading to collateral damage are not helping the state reach peace. Instead, they push the disgruntled youth to join separatist groups.

Terrorism is neither irrational, nor abrupt. One does not become radicalized spontaneously. In counterterrorism measures, the long-term solution requires pulling the oxygen out – let the connection between the terrorist organizations and the citizens weaken to the maximum level and choke their support in the people. On the contrary, if citizens are not taken into confidence and their demands remain unmet, it becomes easier for terrorist outfits to cash in on the anger of the people and recruit them for their vicious plans.

To conclude, Pakistan needs to adopt a people-centric approach and listen to the genuine issues of the people in the periphery. Political solutions can be fruitful and long-lasting. Taking the people into confidence, providing them with equal opportunities and resolving their issues would strangulate separatist movements. And Pakistan needs that for smooth progress in CPEC and other economic activities.

The writer is a political scientist with a focus on international relations and sociopolitical issues. He can be reached at: